The following post features an interview I had with Angela Hume about her upcoming book of poetry, Middle Time (Omnidawn, 2016). This book breathes intensely between moments of ecology, biology, and temporality. Here’s an excerpt:
Geraldine Kim: In reading Middle Time, I felt there was a relationship between how time was marked and how the words were spaced out on the page. Could you talk a bit about the book’s structure?
Angela Hume: Middle Time is comprised of four serial poems. Each one takes on a different form. One series titled “melos” has lines that drift from the left margin like a meandering river. I wrote it by several Northern California rivers and streams—the Big Sur, Lagunitas Creek, South Yuba. One series, “the middle,” is in columns that create a kind of echo chamber and suggest different possibilities for reading. In writing it, I was thinking about secondariness, multivocality, and choral chant. When I write, I pay close attention to rhythm and sound. I want the rhymes, alliteration, line lengths, and line breaks to pace the poem—to keep time, to draw attention to the experience of time—and also create music. Sometimes I think the resulting music is beautiful—melos—and other times I think it can be startling, strange, even hard to hear—threnos.
In antiquity, women’s choral lamentation was called threnos. It was considered incompatible with lyric, or melos. But according to a classicist called Nicole Loraux, in tragedy the chorus along with political (or anti-political) women like Cassandra, Antigone, and Electra conflate threnos with song. Theirs is a lyre-less music, or anti-lyric lyric. And so, for a very long time now, lyric has been thought of as inherently resistant.
I’m not saying that lyric has to be or is necessarily anti-lyric or anti-anything. But generally it’s good for people and poems to be anti. Systems and institutions tell us to just say yes. Women especially are supposed to say yes. We’re judged based on “how well we work with others,” etc. If we say no—to authority, to certain kinds of sex, to a certain definition of beauty, to having children—we’re told we’re combative, ugly, useless. So it’s especially important for women and women’s art to say no.
GK: There was a theme of environmentalism, chemistry, and the biological—these terms were mixed like an alloy, swirled and churning but never quite transforming into one another. What influenced this confluence of themes?
AH: My interest in environmental justice and women’s health in particular influenced the confluence of these themes. Since World War II, the modern chemical industry has increased more than 30-fold. The introduction of so many new toxic chemicals into agriculture, industrial manufacture, and even pharmaceuticals has been devastating for human, animal, and environmental health. Women’s health in particular has been compromised, largely because of how the patriarchy has treated women’s bodies like a problem that needs to be fixed. In the 20th century, diethylstilbestrol (DES), an endocrine disruptor, was used to treat menopausal and pregnant women and then as a growth hormone in livestock. But researchers and even the FDA knew all along that DES could cause cancer and problems with sexual development. (See Nancy Langston’s book on DES.) The insecticide DDT was banned in 1972, but it still shows up in most pregnant women’s bodies, just as Rachel Carson predicted it would. The real problem is that it’s almost always low-income women, women of color, and women from other marginalized groups who are most affected by the chemical industry.
But anti-toxics advocacy is tricky. The rhetoric can end up reinforcing sexist, queerphobic ideas about what’s healthy and “normal.” The herbicide Atrazine, for example, has been found to feminize fish, amphibians, and reptiles. But when environmentalists start citing these findings and conflating “health” with “normal” sex characteristics and reproductive futurity, they end up reinforcing a heteronormative politics. Giovanna Di Chiro writes compellingly about these issues.
As someone who is both an environmental activist and an advocate for LGBTQ people, I think a lot about this question of how to merge environmental politics and queer politics in a way that is critical of the different ideologies at work.
GK: What other works influenced Middle Time?
AH: Hegel’s Logic. All of Lorine Niedecker. Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence”—his ideas about a “pure violence” that could destroy all law-making and law-preserving violence. All of Myung Mi Kim and Claudia Rankine. Jalal Toufic’s The Withdrawal of Tradition. Evelyn Reilly’s Styrofoam. Anne Carson’s An Oresteia. There are many others, too.
GK: Do you consider yourself and/or your work feminist?
AH: Yes, I am a feminist. I am constantly learning from smart feminists I admire. Brenda Hillman is a sister-mother-mentor to me. Juliana Spahr has taught me about organizing and radical politics. Joan Retallack and Brenda Cárdenas are two feminist poets whom I admire and whom I was glad to get to meet in person more recently. Retallack’s theory of the “experimental feminine”—a poetics that has less to do with sex or gender and more to do with a commitment to undermining patriarchy’s “official logics” — inspires me. Audre Lorde’s writings have taught me about the problem of feminisms that do not account for how gender- and race-based oppressions are intertwined.
At this point in my life I am fairly women-centric. I am most interested in listening to what women and nonbinary people have to say. There are feminist men out there doing great work, but I’m feeling fed up with all of the un-feminist ones. I’m tired of men who don’t see or hear non-cis men. I’m tired of men who rape, abuse, gaslight, intimidate, discredit, subordinate, disqualify, objectify, use, talk over, and/or ignore women. Who among us has not experienced or survived many or most of these violent acts? As a smart, confident queer woman in my mid-30s, I feel less visible to men than ever before in my life. In some ways, it’s maddening. But it’s also reassuring: if they don’t like what they see (or refuse to see), I must be doing something right.
GK: Yes, yes, yes! What feminist writers do you admire?
AH: In Oakland where I live, I am lucky to be surrounded by feminist writers. Last year, the reading series I co-curated, Hearts Desire, focused on work by women and nonbinary poets. Some poets who read for Hearts Desire and who I think are doing terrific feminist writing are Amy Berkowitz, Duriel Harris, Cheena Marie Lo, Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta, and Sara Jane Stoner. Amy, Cheena, and Sara Jane are great experimentalists with prose poetry and the essay form. Duriel and Tatiana explore polyvocality in risky, complicated ways. These poets are all imagining different ways to write the queer body and to write through trauma to the body. Hearts Desire was really lucky to be able to host these people, and many others.
GK: What kinds of thoughts/projects occupy your mind nowadays?
AH: I’m a teacher, so I’m always busy doing research for new classes. I recently offered one on “Carbon Cultures: Understanding the Politics of Energy, Climate, and Crisis in the 20th/21st Century.” My class investigated how the rise of fossil-energy systems (coal, oil, and natural gas) has been defining historical condition of the 20th/21st century. We looked at how energy systems have been both a condition of possibility for and also an obstacle to certain resistance and liberation movements. Some of the units in the class were on topics like “the coal mine/resistance,” “the car and the road,” “garbage/petrochemical waste,” and “petrofeminisms/queer petroaesthetics.” One day Brenda Hillman visited, and we Skyped in Heidi Lynn Staples and Stephen Collis, too. The three poets, all anti-extraction activists, talked to us about their anti-Keystone XL, anti-offshore drilling, and anti-tar sands writing and activism, and about moving “from petromelancholia to direct action.” I put my syllabus online; you can view it here.
In my new poetry, I’m trying on different forms. I’m turning my attention more explicitly to the question of how one might queer ecological thinking and writing. I’m trying to interrogate concepts like sustainability, femininity, and monstrosity. We’ll see what happens!
Angela Hume lives in Oakland. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Melos (Projective Industries, 2015), The Middle (Omnidawn, 2013) and Second Story of Your Body (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2011). Her first full-length book of poetry is Middle Time (Omnidawn, 2016). You can learn more about Angela here.